Journalists are often searching for and publishing things that someone wants kept quiet. This is good, of course — it’s what journalism is for. A free press doesn’t work to keep people happy, it works to keep people accountable.
It can be shockingly easy for journalists to end up in court, especially when they’re covering crime and grime. Most journalists can rest easy knowing that their publication will have their back if anything goes sour. But freelancers don’t necessarily have the same protections.
Sometimes you’ll get a good egg, like when The Huffington Post backed up freelance contributor Yashar Ali in 2017. Ali was hit with a $50 million defamation lawsuit over his reportage of sexual harassment allegations against ex-Fox News host Eric Bolling — and the summons omitted any mention of HuffPost. Ali believed that this may have been to target him personally. The allegations were never proven, but the Huffington Post stood by Ali’s reporting and promised to support him in his legal battle.
But, depending on your work contract, this kind of support might not be guaranteed, and not all news organisations will be so chivalrous. The reality is, if someone out there is in a litigious mood, freelancers can present an easier target than publication-backed journalists.
So what can you do?
Staying organised, private, and secure as a freelancer
Keeping all your sources and communications secure and organised will go a long way.
Freelance journalists don’t get the same institutional support to maintain their digital security. There are no company firewalls, computer technicians, or lawyers watching over your shoulder while you work — so you gotta cover yourself.
Making sure you keep minutes or record your interviews. Keeping an archive of these things even long after the story you publish the story is always a good idea too. Make sure it is stored securely — and that means no cloud storage. Remember the rules of proper data storage: at least three copies, on two different types of storage (internal hard drive, USB), and two different locations. This will help protect you from data loss. And of course, make sure whatever storage solution you use is encrypted and password protected.
If you’re communicating or reporting digitally, make sure you are always using an encrypted messenger (in case you missed it: how to pick a good encrypted messenger), and an encrypted email provider. This will help protect you from hacks, source leaks, and information leaks that are out of your control.
For large news publications, it can be hard to keep up to date with the most ‘private’ messaging and email providers. The latest and greatest can change quickly, and getting the whole office to switch over is time consuming and impractical. But as a freelancer, you have an advantage: you don’t have to convince a whole office to start using a new technology — you just have to make the switch yourself.
And of course, you’re not just protecting yourself by using encrypted communications — you’re protecting your sources too.
Get specialised insurance that covers the perils of journalism
Newsgathering and publishing can get you into some unusual situations. If you’re working as a freelance journalist, you should choose an insurance policy that covers problems specific to working in the media. Sometimes, publications cover their freelancers in their own insurance policies — but not always, so it’s worth checking.
The best policy for you will depend on where you’re working, but you’ll likely want the policy to include things like breach of privacy, defamation, libel, copyright infringements, and factual errors.
When you’re negotiating a contract, most publications worth their salt will agree to take on the liability of your work as a reporter. If they don’t, it’s definitely worth trying to get your own insurance policy to avoid ending up in litigation hell.
Freelancers can have access to legal advice, too
If you’re working for a large news publication, they might have a legal team on-staff. These people know the ins and outs of media law, so if you have access to these people — use them. They can comb your copy and make sure that it is absolutely air-tight.
If you don’t have access to one of these teams, it is possible you can still access legal advice without having to pay through the nose for it. Foundations like the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press can help you sidestep any legal landmines. But, be careful — you don’t have attorney-client privilege when you contact legal hotlines, so don’t send anything confidential.
Freelance journalism doesn’t need to be scary
Freelance journalists have all the same problems as every other journalist — plus a few more. Although there are extra challenges that come with being a freelance reporter, there are lots of ways to protect yourself. And taking just a few steps to prevent the lawsuit apocalypse from arriving at your front door can help you focus on the scoop, not the suit.